Hacking the BBC

I spent several months last year working with a team of people, including Kevin, on a retrospective of BBC Backstage, which has now been released as a free ebook. As I wrote for the introduction:

BBC Backstage was a five year initiative to radically open up the BBC, publishing information and data feeds, connecting people both inside and outside the organisation, and building a developer community. The call was to “use our stuff to make your stuff” and people did, to the tune of over 500 prototypes.

This ebook is a snapshot of some of the projects and events that Backstage was involved in, from its launch at Open Tech 2005, through the triumph of Hack Day 2007 and the shot-for-web R&DTV, to current visualisation project DataArt. We take a diversion to Bangladesh to see how a Backstage hacker helped the World Service keep reporting through the horrendous Cyclone Sidr, and look at the impact of the ‘playground’ servers, used inside the BBC.

Backstage’s mandate, throughout its history, was for change. It changed the way people think, the way the BBC interacted with external designers and developers, and the way that they worked together. So what remains, now Backstage is no more? The legacy isn’t just a few data feeds and some blog posts. Backstage brought about permanent change, for the people who worked there, for its community of external developers and for the BBC. What better legacy could one ask for?

Jemima Kiss has written a great piece on The Guardian about it:

Night has finally fallen on the visionary and quietly influential five-year project that was BBC Backstage, a collaboration of ideas, experiments and talent that informed and defined some of the corporation’s best technology work.

Now set to be replaced by a cross-industry developer network – a repository for data from many media organisations and tech companies – this special corner of the BBC devoted to developers has been wound down.


Woolard talks of Backstage in three phases: creating a space to make this kind of experimentation and open innovation possible; engaging the developer community; and a third stage that takes these findings and this attitude of openness further across the BBC and its output. He points to last year’s BBC 2 series Virtual Revolution, which explored the impact of the web, and was heavily influenced by the R&D TV project led by Rain Ashford, which also filmed wide-ranging interviews with high-profile technologists and allowed viewers to cut and shape footage for their own use.

Now, says Woolard, it is normal to talk about openness, innovation and working with external developers – and he claims the BBC is “fully technology conversant” in what it needs to do.

Backstage was born on the same day as the Open Rights Group, on 23 July 2005 at the Open Tech conference. I was rather busy bootstrapping ORG whilst Backstage was getting off the ground, but I kept my eye on it nonetheless.

Backstage and ORG had a lot in common beyond their birthday – a desire for more openness, a fervent dislike of DRM, and a strong DIY ethic. We also shared a community: many of our supporters were also Backstagers. In many ways, we were two sides of the same coin, with ORG campaigning publicly for change, especially around DRM, and Backstage working the inside line. I like to think we had a nice pincer movement going on.

Backstage had some amazing moments, most notably HackDay at Ally Pally, which I sadly missed due to being on a plane at the time. Spending time last year reading over old blog posts, it was great to be reminded of what a vibrant community Backstage built and what groundbreaking work they did, especially with events. Most importantly, they redefined expectations around open data and standards.

Congratulations to everyone who was involved in Backstage, and huge thanks to the Hacking the BBC team!